1. A Strong Ethical Compass
So, what does “a strong ethical compass” mean? Here it is important to distinguish between ethics and morality, two words we often use interchangeably or synonymously. The English word ‘morality’ derives from the Latin word moralis, meaning “proper behavior of a person in society,” literally, “pertaining to manners or customs.” In other words, moral behavior is customary behavior, and it is often behind the claim or rationale, “I’m just doing what every other leader does …” Such justifications or explanations are an attempt to explain away behavior that is otherwise questionable, if not objectionable, much like, “Nothing I did was illegal.” In fact, very few leaders act illegally, which is why when they do it makes it into the news media.
Morality, in other words, is contextual, it’s what is meant by the definition of mannered or customary behavior. Ethics is different. Very different.
The English word ‘ethics’ derives from the Greek word ethika, which at its root means an animal pen. Huh?
It makes sense when you think about what an animal’s pen does … it defines boundaries and those boundaries act as protection for the animal. An ethical leader defines the boundaries of behavior in their organization, both for the individuals within the organization and for the organization itself, which leads to the second essential of leadership: careful stewardship.
2. Careful Stewardship
Caring for an organization’s well-being is principally an act of stewardship. It’s exactly what is meant by the phrase that leaders have a ‘fiduciary responsibility to the organization’. A narrow reading of ‘fiduciary’ responsibility is ‘financial’ responsibility, and that certainly is implied in the phrase. Again, some etymology is helpful here: the English word fiduciary derives from the Latin ‘fides’ or faithfulness. Certainly one would never assume a marriage partner is faithful to the marriage if all they did was produce income. Faithfulness to an organization’s well-being implies so much more than concern only about its “bottom line.”
Indeed, the chief responsibility of a leader may be to care for an organization’s reputation.
Here we again need to distinguish between two words that sometimes get confused with each other: reputation and brand. An organization’s brand is the image that leaders try to shape and control about how the organization is perceived by others. An organization’s reputation is what others experience when interacting with the organization.
So when an organization’s reputation and brand are consonant with each other, the organization benefits because others benefit. Branding is what marketers do … building a reputation is what leaders do.
Be sure to look out for a follow up post, where we’ll look at the three remaining leadership essentials: attention to an organization’s culture; curiosity; and, courage.